The price you pay for a Sacramento Kings ticket at Golden 1 Center doesn’t just depend on where you sit.
It also depends on which game you’re attending, how you buy the ticket and even when you make your purchase.
Ticket pricing is becoming increasingly sophisticated in the world of sports and entertainment, and industry experts say the Kings are among the savviest practitioners anywhere. Instead of assigning a single price point to a section of the arena, they’ve sliced and diced their seating chart more precisely than ever, creating a blizzard of options for fans. Prices are no longer static; like a hotel chain or airline, the Kings employ “dynamic pricing” models that react in real time to supply and demand.
The Kings have been going in this direction for years; they were one of the first NBA teams to charge premiums for marquee games and adjust prices on the fly. With the opening of Golden 1, the team has taken the concept to a higher level. New systems allow the team to fine tune its prices down to the last dollar.
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“It’s a very rigorous process behind the scenes on our end ... to predict how to price a particular game or price a particular row or price a particular seat,” said Kings President Chris Granger.
The impact on fans’ pocketbooks can be striking. A recent game against the ever-popular Los Angeles Lakers cost a lot more – twice as much for some upper-bowl seats – than the contest two days earlier against the woeful New Orleans Pelicans on election night. Seat location matters more than ever: In some cases, moving just a couple of rows closer to the action for the Pelicans game cost an extra $10 to $20 per seat.
Timing makes a difference, too. A week before the Pelicans game, eighth-row seats behind the basket cost $154 apiece, not counting taxes and fees. A day before the game, they jumped to $163. But in that same time period, a cluster of seats in the middle of the upper bowl dropped in price, from $62 to $48, according to Ticketmaster. Other seats fluctuated by as little as $1 or $2.
Team officials said they’re simply responding to market forces, sifting through reams of data on customer purchases or other inputs as they try to unload a nightly inventory of about 6,000 seats that haven’t been sold through season tickets.
Multiple factors play into pricing decisions. Some opponents are more appealing than others. Weekend games are in higher demand. The team’s recent on-court performance plays a role. And price movements on the so-called secondary market, where fans resell their tickets through Ticketmaster, StubHub or other outlets, provide additional insight on which prices need to be adjusted.
“We’re not trying to set the market; we’re trying to reflect the market,” Granger said.
Prices have risen with the move to Golden 1, which was built at a cost of $557 million. Yet Granger said pricing at the new downtown arena is “largely similar” to the team’s former home at Sleep Train Arena. Tickets in the last rows of the upper and lower bowls are about $2 to $3 more expensive at Golden 1, he said.
But making apples-to-apples comparisons can be difficult, given the increased number of choices fans have.
Consider a fairly unremarkable game Feb. 25 against the Charlotte Hornets. Although Ticketmaster last week listed fewer than 500 tickets remaining, they were available from the Kings at 47 different prices, from $31 to $250.
And that doesn’t tell the whole story. Besides Ticketmaster, the Kings sell seats through a variety of “channels,” including the team’s smartphone app, group sales and special promotions for “insiders” who sign up for email alerts at the team’s website. There are discounts on select games for Golden 1 Credit Union members, as part of the institution’s arena naming-rights deal with the Kings.
Each of these marketing channels offers different prices. All told, the Kings have as many as 500 different pricing options available on any given night, Granger said.
Granger ran the NBA’s data and analytics division, advising teams on sales and other business issues, before joining the Kings in 2013. On his watch, experts say the Kings have become one of the most sophisticated organizations in sports when it comes to pricing tickets.
“He’s always been one to push the edge of the envelope,” said Scott Jablonski, who worked for Granger in the NBA’s league office and runs a Bay Area sport-business consultancy called 77 Analytics LLC. “He’s always been one of the forward thinkers in this space.”
Gyrating ticket prices haven’t stopped people from buying tickets, at least for now. The Kings have inaugurated their new 17,608-seat arena with a string of sellouts, according to ESPN.com.
Fans said they expect to pay higher prices to see a high-quality opponent. They don’t seem to mind the idea that, because of timing and other factors, they might pay more than the person sitting next to them.
“That’s the way of most things. It’s like an airline ticket,” said Leslie Stewart, a visitor from Los Angeles who snagged a pair of upper-bowl tickets to the Nov. 15 game against the San Antonio Spurs. She and her husband got a deal; they paid $30 apiece the day before the game for tickets that cost $49 a week earlier.
Mario Jimenez, a Sacramentan who frequently buys and sells Kings tickets, said he enjoys trying to time the market as prices move up and down.
“It’s like a stock market,” said Jimenez, who paid $55 apiece for three nosebleed seats for the Spurs game. “I try to buy when the stock’s low.”
Charging more money for the best seats is nothing new in sports and entertainment. What’s different in the last 15 years or so is the advent of more sophisticated pricing models.
It started in the early 2000s with the concept known as “variable pricing,” in which the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and a handful of other major-league baseball teams began placing a premium price on the more popular games. But the prices were set in stone, before the season began.
The next step came in 2009, when the San Francisco Giants became one of the first sports teams to adopt “dynamic pricing” models that would adjust prices during the season.
The Kings joined the fray in 2010, along with a few other pioneering NBA franchises. For the first time, games at old Sleep Train Arena were grouped into five price tiers, according to the popularity of the opponent, and the Kings started fine tuning prices as the season went on.
Six years later, the team has moved into a shiny new arena. That has raised demand for tickets, but it doesn’t guarantee every game will sell out. Because the Kings deliberately capped season ticket sales at something north of 11,000, they have around 6,000 tickets available for each game.
Ticket experts say the explosion of resale tickets on the secondary market gives fans more leverage over teams. Season ticket owners often try to unload tickets in direct competition with the team; sometimes they offer comparable seats at lower prices. In addition, experts say fans are increasingly waiting until the 11th hour to buy seats because they’re more confident than ever that tickets will always be available somewhere.
“With the secondary market, there is no such thing as ‘sold out.’ I can always get a ticket on StubHub,” said Barry Kahn, chief executive of Qcue, a Texas firm that supplies ticket-pricing software to the Giants and other teams.
Granger disagreed, saying most fans still buy their tickets as soon as possible. He added that the secondary market doesn’t undermine the Kings’ ability to sell tickets. Just the opposite – it gives the Kings “a wealth of data, it’s instructive in how buyers are responding to a particular game,” he said.
Granger said the team’s philosophy is to match ticket buyers with prices that fit their comfort zones. “There is a price or product for every fan,” he said.
Sometimes there are limits.
Carl Davis, who picked up a pair of upper-bowl tickets for the Spurs game for $71 each, said he’s fine with paying more money to see the top opponents. But when he tried to buy tickets for the Jan. 8 game against the star-laden Golden State Warriors, he couldn’t believe the prices.
Tickets for the last row of the upper bowl behind the basket – the cheapest seats in the house – were selling for $112 last week. The Kings were asking $550 for lower bowl seats a few rows off the floor.
“When I saw the price, I said, ‘I can watch it on TV,’ ” Davis said.